Photo: Suomen Palloliitto / Jussi Eskola
Always enthusiastic, engaging and brimming with football knowledge, it is not hard to see how Marianne Miettinen has scaled the heights at the Suomen Palloliitto (Football Association of Finland).
A UEFA Pro Licence holder, the Finnish FA’s Performance Director (Girls) and U-19 Women’s Head Coach spoke exclusively to Women’s Soccer United on a range of issues – including the recent FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and how much reaching November’s FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay means to her country.
Women’s Soccer United: It was a busy August for you, with two separate visits to the U-20 Women’s World Cup in France. Could you give us some of your impressions on the competition?
Marianne Miettinen: Yes, that’s right – in the group phase I was there with seven of our youth national coaches from Finland, as we’re currently updating our plans for player development and for the style of play of our youth national teams. Last year, we carried out an analysis of the [UEFA] Women’s EURO and this year we did that for the U-20 Women’s World Cup.
[Our analysis involves assessing] how do the different teams play? What are the trends tactically, technically, physically and mentally that we could be better at? And what are we already good at – keeping in mind our identity here in Finland?
Later on, towards the end of the U-20 World Cup I came back for the FIFA Women’s Football Conference [in Rennes], and had the opportunity to see the match for third place and the Final. I think Spain are fantastic now at every level: just look at their results in the U-17 and U-19 EUROs [N.B. Spain won both events this year], plus the senior women’s national team and their U-20s. They have very skilful players in every area of the pitch!
WSU: And what did you make of the champions Japan?
MM: I loved Japan! I saw them play against United States in the group phase and I saw them again in the Final: I think they are a wonderful team with fantastic footballers. They prove that you don’t have to be big or very tall to succeed. Their players aren’t tall but they’re really athletic and quick and their decision-making is especially fantastic. In my view, having Spain versus Japan in the final, showing just how good football they could play, was the best possible marketing for women’s football.
WSU: You coached a Finland squad containing the likes of Nora Heroum, Juliette Kemppi and Adelina Engman at the U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2014. How would you compare that tournament with France 2018?
MM: If I compare this edition to the one I went to with Finland, I think the game has improved significantly. Teams are even better organised defensively than before and that poses a lot of challenges to attacking teams, in terms of how to break those defences down. Physically, I saw really fit players in every team. The speed of the game is getting higher and higher, so the physical requirements are greater, in order for the players to be able to keep up the high intensity and also perform actions at high speed. I think that was the biggest improvement compared to 2014.
However, I know that a big concern at the moment, which we talked about [at the FIFA Women’s Football Conference], is that the step between senior level and youth level is getting bigger and bigger. That’s a big challenge and something that maybe UEFA needs to discuss. If there was also an U-21 or U-23 final tournament, the players would have more time to develop before they needed to take the step up to senior level.
WSU: With the U-17 Women’s World Cup coming up fast, what could that competition mean to the Finnish game?
MM: First of all, it was a really major step for us for our U-17s to qualify for the U-17 Women’s EURO final tournament for the first time. Then we played really well at the final tournament and qualified for the World Cup so these tournaments are really important for the players and their development.
If we look at our current senior national squad, I’m not sure of the exact number but I think there’s around eight to ten players who played at Canada 2014 who are now in the senior set-up. It’s really important, especially for smaller countries, to reach these tournaments to be able to carry out a longer project with these age groups.
[If they reach a final tournament] they will get more training camp days together and they will play more tough warm-up games. They will then get to experience the highest possible level at the final tournament and get a feel for what it takes to play in the finals of a World Cup or a EURO.
Even so, the gap is still big from youth level to the senior side, but [senior boss] Anna Signeul is a very experienced coach, so I’m sure that, when the moment comes, she’ll help make sure our young players are ready for the next step.
WSU: What are the benefits of having young, full internationals such as the aforementioned Engman, Kemppi and Heroum playing abroad for Chelsea FC, Bristol City and AC Milan respectively?
MM: I think the challenge they face at the moment is that the players can’t be professional football players in our country, unfortunately. We do have a system, together with the Olympic Committee, where we can support players financially, so they can call themselves ‘semi-professional’, but at the moment, our best players need to go abroad to be able to focus on football 100 percent.
I think it’s important that we build towards having that kind of structure in Finland, so players can stay here until they are ready to step into an even more competitive environment. If you take Adelina Engman as an example, her environment is really good: she has a good coach, she has good players around her and the fact that she’ll be challenged every day is going to improve her a lot.
WSU: You mentioned that you and your colleagues are renewing your player development plan. Is that something that you do regularly or were there issues that you wanted to fix?
MM: We started laying down a development plan in 2011, when Andrée Jeglertz was technical director and senior women’s head coach. We analysed that year’s [senior] Women’s World Cup and then we put together a development plan in 2012, which we assess and update every year. Since I took over the technical director post a year and a half ago, I think we’ve accelerated the updating process because the women’s game has developed so much in the last five years.
WSU: What would you say the essence of your player development plan is?
MM: Well, we try to take into account the kind of players we have in the various age groups, while we have in place a structure of how we want to play based on which style we think develops the players the most. It’s not only based on how we can get the best results at youth national team level, it’s more about what kind of football we think will develop our players best for senior international level.
WSU: I imagine it would be easier to play results football at youth level, but long-term you’d pay for those short cuts, right?
MM: Yes, and I think that, because we’re not the biggest country and don’t have the most resources, one key thing for us is our ‘common development pathway’, in which we at the FA also work together closely with the clubs. This is also a strength of other small countries, like Iceland, for instance. As there are not so many clubs and people working in the [Finnish] women’s game, we can cooperate more easily.
Our ‘talent coach system’ is also a major strength of ours. We have a certain amount of full-time talent coaches at the main women’s clubs in Finland: we pay their salaries, but they work at the clubs. We also use these same people as assistant coaches in the various youth national teams, so the link is really close. Communication is really fluid because they see what’s needed at international level when they’re with the national team, then they go directly to the clubs and they work with the players there every day and can implement what they’ve seen. I think that is a special thing that we’ve been doing in Finland for many years now and it’s giving us results, because the most important place for a player’s development is their club – where they are on a daily basis – not the national team.
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UK-born but currently based in Spain, I’ve been covering men’s and women’s football for UEFA.com for several years, including trips to two Women’s U-19 European Championships